Alicia Keys, "Unplugged"
The decision for Alicia Keys to revive MTV's "Unplugged" format seemed a natural one -- with an armful of Grammies and millions in record sales, she usually appears in settings simply too large to let her give play to the full range of her abilities as a performer. The intimacies of a smaller setting would allow her two greatest natural assets, her voice and her arrangement skills, to shine just a little more brightly. Now the performance, taped in July at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, is finally being released, and most critics agree that the idea of paring things down was a good one. The Boston Globe finds that usually her CDs "never adequately capture the emotional texture of her exceptional voice," but the new disc proves "why the singer-songwriter-pianist is one of the great talents of her generation." USA Today (four stars out of four) agrees that BAM is "a perfect venue for the singer/pianist, who is unafraid to play with the arrangements of her hits ('Fallin',' 'You Don't Know My Name') or to reimagine cover songs ('Every Little Bit Hurts,' 'If I Were Your Woman')." Billboard is equally enthralled, gushing about Keys' "boundless passion for her craft. Radio hits like 'Karma,' 'If I Ain't Got You' and 'Fallin' ' sound new again, pumped up by Keys' creative arrangements and cunning piano stylings."
Distancing itself a bit from the pack, the New York Daily News finds plenty to dislike here, starting with the "Unplugged" concept itself. "(M)any of these allegedly pared-down versions aren't all that spare after all. As on the old 'Unplugged,' Keys makes eager use of local power outlets. (That rumbling bass didn't happen by magic, you know.)" The News doesn't question whether the album is good, but if it's necessary. "Keys' version of the low-volume concept may be nice to watch for free on TV. But is it worth laying out hard cash for the CD? Only if you're a devout fan."
This is no Carlos Santana record, but a few guests do show up. The Globe finds "Wild Horses" with Maroon 5's Adam Levine to be the "closest thing to a misfire" on the record, and says Levine's voice "seems annoyingly nasal." The album's other collaboration, though, comes in for high praise from all sides, like the Seatlle Post-Intelligencer's (grade: B) line that " the closing medley of "Love It or Leave It Alone" and "Welcome to Jamrock" featuring Mos Def, Common and Damian Marley is a fabulous love fest." The News, on the other hand, really likes "Every Little Bit Hurts," as well as "the cool and adventurous hip-hop jazz interlude "Streets of New York." Otherwise, the paper says, "'Unplugged' sounds like a stopgap project Keys cooked up to kill time before giving us something more significant."
Ricky Martin, "Life"
"I hope I'm not the same artist I was five years ago, because it would be impossible," says Ricky Martin to Reuters about his new record. "Life -- where it takes you, what you see, what you read -- changes you. Definitely, when I began to create for this album, the one thing I wanted was to not even attempt to do what I had already done. That's why I played with many genres I hadn't visited before, and I made them mine." That may be carefully honed marketing-speak, but critics agree with Mr. "Ale ale ale" on this score: Billboard says, "What you will not hear is anything that sounds remotely like 'Livin' La Vida Loca.'" The new style present on the album, a mixture of hip-hop, reggaeton and Eastern-tinged music is either "an accessible melting pot" (USA Today) or merely "a much-needed overhaul," according to E! Online (grade: B-), who also critiques Martin's new look: "Ricky Martin has gone butch on the cover of his latest album, forsaking hair gel and shiny shirts for facial stubble and an ominous tattoo. But if you think the year spent traveling to Third World countries before he recorded Life has turned the wiggly Latin heartthrob into a sourpuss el grande, think again." The New York Daily News kind of laments Martin's attempt to break out of the cartoonish shell "La Vida Loca" placed him in. "It turns out he makes a topnotch camp icon. The sillier his music, the more likable he becomes." The album may sound like nothing Martin has done before, but that's not a good thing, say the News: "It doesn't help in differentiating Martin's efforts that the producers buried his voice in echo. Nor does it aid his desire to be taken seriously that his new songs are kitsch. Ultimately, Martin's 'world' influences wind up seeming like the sonic equivalent of the souvenirs sold at an airport gift shop. They're both tacky and tacked-on."
Dolly Parton, "Those Were the Days"
For her newest release, Dolly Parton revisits the pop music of an earlier era, with an eye towards songs with overtones about the very contemporary political situation. "Dolly Parton pulls a Santana on her latest album," writes E! Online, "and even does him one better." She's amassed a solid supporting cast: Norah Jones, Alison Krauss, Roger McGuinn, Keith Urban, Nickel Creek and Yusuf Islam (aka Cat Stevens) on guitar, among others. Yet the result, as Billboard breathlessly raves, is all Dolly: "It is hard not to like a Dolly Parton record. The legend has such an appealing voice, full of warmth and tenderness (and fiery spunk when she wants), and it is put to great use on 'Those Were the Days.'" And indeed, there's a political angle to the record as well; as the Orlando Sentinel notes, all the songs Parton has chosen to cover here are "rooted firmly in 1960s and early 1970s radio pop, with a noticeable emphasis on what used to be called protest music." But the political message, like the musical one, is wrapped in a breezy but complex package, writes the New York Times: "Ms. Parton remains incredibly adept at mixing up depth and shallowness. This is by no means a political album. But it is, among other things, a simple nostalgia album, a wartime album, a heading-toward-catastrophe album and a recollection-of-innocence album."
Still, some critics are left wanting a little more from the Country Music Hall of Famer. The Times does start out with a moan: "Dolly Parton's new album, at first glance, is a little beneath her. She may be famous for making country music, but it doesn't take much nerve or strategy for her to record covers of popular folk and soft-rock songs from the Vietnam era." The New York Post (one and a half stars out of four) is in full smirk mode: "When an artist as important and influential as Dolly Parton puts out an album as hokey as her new cover collection 'Those Were the Days,' you wonder if she got too close to the back end of the mule." Billboard gets at the fact that there may simply be a good business model at work here: "Sales should be solid -- her trio of bluegrass albums has sold more than 600,000 copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan; Parton is on tour; and the lineup of guests adds instant consumer appeal."
-- Scott Lamb